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‘The Good Place’ Twists the Sitcom Season Finale

When was the last time a network half hour pulled the rug out from under you?

(NBC)
(NBC)

Consider this a spoiler alert for the finale of The Good Place — but we should pause to marvel that an NBC sitcom even requires one. Comedy is not typically associated with shocking twists, nor shocking twists with comedy: When a will-they-or-won’t-they finally does, it’s not exactly shocking; when a character dies in a fiery car crash, it isn’t exactly hysterical. The Good Place’s finale Thursday proved a marvelous exception, putting the tiniest, most delightful of fractures in our assumptions of what network comedy can do.

Like: Holy shirt, the name of the show was a red herring? We’ve never even been in the Good Place! Like all the best twists, this new information opens up all kinds of possibilities for the show itself. It also opens up a few for its format.

From the first moments of its September premiere, Michael Schur’s Parks and Recreation follow-up distinguished itself on multiple fronts: top-notch talent in the form of showrunner Schur and his costars, Kristen Bell and Ted Danson; a novel, wacky premise with near-unlimited potential for world-building and absurdist humor; and a sincere (and sweet) preoccupation with morality uncommon in non-family sitcoms since Seinfeld first handed down its dictum of no hugging, no learning.

There was also another, more technical distinction between The Good Place and the rest of network television, though its effect wasn’t fully visible until Thursday night. The show received a full 13-episode season order before Schur had even produced a pilot, allowing him and his writers to craft a complete narrative and tell it with more momentum and less wheel-spinning than the average sitcom’s shenanigans-of-the-week setup. And in case we doubted just how serious Schur was about storytelling, he consulted with no less than Damon Lindelof, a showrunner with experience in depicting various forms of the afterlife, while whipping the project into shape. It seemed a tad extra at the time. Now, well …

We always knew The Good Place was headed somewhere. We just didn’t know where until we watched Danson pull a heel turn in seconds flat.

That was the big twist: We’re not even in the titular Good Place at all, you see. The premise of The Good Place, we thought, was that Eleanor had mistakenly found herself in something like heaven, and had subsequently pursued an ethics crash course in the hope she’d become decent enough to stay unnoticed. But this whole time, our heroes — aggressive jerk Eleanor, worrywart ethicist Chidi, showboat glamazon Tahani, and literal Florida Man Jason — were actually in an elaborately designed Bad Place (that’d be hell), one custom-fit to their personal insecurities. In fact, surrounding a defensive loner like Eleanor (we learn this week she died while in the process of telling someone off for asking her why she’s like this) with people “literally better than me” was the whole point. So was trapping Chidi in an impossible moral dilemma, Tahani with a soulmate she couldn’t even talk to, and so on. Presiding over it all was Danson’s Michael, posing as a kindly custodian while actually ensuring his human charges were torturing each other with maximum efficiency.

The reveal is shocking, and not least because it manages to be what so few television twists are these days: genuinely unexpected. The Good Place isn’t Westworld, a show that burdened itself with impossibly high expectations of surprise it visibly strained to exceed. The Good Place didn’t need nearly as much contortion or trickery to provoke a genuine emotional response. The Good Place had jokes — hilarious, strange, wildly inventive jokes — to keep us happy and distracted. Its twist is doubly effective with half the complication.

The new development is also fundamentally rooted in character, slyly demonstrating how much The Good Place was able to fully realize these people and their interlocking vulnerabilities in just a handful of episodes. If the show earns a well-deserved second season — it should, and there’s a decent chance it will (Schur has teased it in interviews) — that’s what will keep us tuning in. Now that Michael’s wiped everyone’s memories and restarted his demented mind game from scratch, the cliffhanger hinges as much on whether Eleanor’s made enough moral progress to carry over into Round 2 as whether she’ll figure out what the hell’s going on. Character is something great ensemble comedies do exceptionally well; it’s what keeps them running week to week. The Good Place raises the possibility that comedy can add dense, mind-bending storytelling to its résumé as well.